Monthly Archives: December 2012

The World Extension Agricultural Educators Made


Tuskegee Institute’s famed Extension agricultural educator Thomas Campbell standing by the Movable School, one of the earliest and most successful examples of agricultural Extension work.

By all accounts, farming has traveled an astonishingly long distance in a comparative short time—a remarkable journey and technological feat owed in no small part to Extension educators.

In colonial America, farmers toiled some 78 hours a week and were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of back-breaking drudgery.  Growing in stature and strength required more food, but the physical limitations of farmers prevented them from growing it.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Extension educators helped show farmers how to produce a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.

The advanced scientific farming methods that grew out of land-grant university research and that were disseminated to farmers by the growing legions of Extension educators broke the unbreakable cycle associated with older patterns of farming and changed the course of agriculture forever.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the deaths of millions from mass starvation as other nitrogen sources approached exhaustion.

Bodies grew larger and healthier.  For example, the average American man in 1850 stood 5 feet and 7 inches, weighed only 146 pounds, and was expected to live to be only 45.  By contrast, in 1980, the typical American man was 5 feet and ten inches, weighed 174 pounds, and was expected to live beyond 75. These statistics are among the many compiled by a study published in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel titled “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”

The strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — was another critical factor behind this dramatic farming transformation.  Mechanization enabled farmers to transform millions of acres into productive cropland that had previously been tied up to feed draft animals.

The abundant and comparatively cheap food supply that many of us take for granted is one of the earliest and most tangible effects of Cooperative Extension work.

Environmental Gains

Yet, as Ridley also stresses in his book, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied the adoption of other modern farming practices also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

For example, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

More strides have been made in recent years with the adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, which have produced drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and use.

As renowned futurist Kevin Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food:  It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things besides raising food — valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

The Road Ahead

What role did Extension play in these dramatic advances?  This technological revolution would not have been possible without the working relationships Extension agents cultivated with the nation’s farmers.

In spite of all these colossal achievements, modern farming is beset with challenges.  Even as farming transforms itself to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century, growing numbers of people around the world are calling for a new farming model that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, less soil disturbance and less reliance on nonrenewable energy resources,

Just as we did in the last century, Extension educators will be working hand in hand with farmers to build a new farming model that emphasizes both economic efficiency and environmental sustainability—a model, Ridley says, that not only will be fully equipped to feed an estimated 9 billion people comfortably but that also will achieve this using considerably less cropland, water, fuel, and chemicals.

It’s All about Extending the Virtuous Circle

Picture of man holding an Ipad.

In the end, social media adoption in Cooperative Extension is about empowering people, helping them understand that all of this adoption points to a movement rather than a fleeting technological trend.

There is all this frantic talk of social media adoption —and rightfully so.  A lot of this talk will generate more Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts within Cooperative Extension, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

The problem, at least, as I see it, is that amid all of this frantic adoption we’re missing the most critical point: Social media adoption is more about mastering a handful of applications; it’s about cultivating an entirely new mindset.

Actually, it’s about something more.  As rhetorically overblown as this may sound to some, it’s about our returning to the core principles that have always defined Extension work, at least, implicitly — inclusiveness and empowerment.

More about that later.

A Movement, Not a Tech Trend

I have to admit that in driving home this argument I’ve felt a bit like a member of a paltry handful of John the Baptists crying out in the wilderness — or, to use another analogy, a starry-eyed idealist stuck in the clouds.   This is precisely why I was gratified a few weeks ago to read a Google-Plus comment by the ever-resourceful and farseeing Bob Bertsch, who harbors a strikingly similar view.

Bob mentioned that his experience with the NetLit Community of Practice, of which we are both members, has driven home a similar conviction.  He argues that “instead of serving an audience or trying to change an organization, we should be inviting people to be part of a world of 7 billion interconnected teachers.”

Why? Because this is about a movement, not some fleeting technological trend, Bob says.

He gets all of this in a fundamental way.  He understands that our challenge is providing our people as well as our diverse audiences with a cosmic view of what’s taking place, because in a very real sense, what is occurring is cosmic — cosmic in the sense that it is reordering every facet of life on this planet, whether this is occurring in a relatively remote Sub-Saharan African city or in downtown Manhattan.

Our challenge is to show our professionals as well as our audiences how all of these changes reflect a movement that is unfolding globally.  Most important of all, though, we must demonstrate how they are empowering people by rendering all facets of life more inclusive.

“Why Nations Fail”

This brings me back to a visionary book I’ve read and re-read over the last few months: “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty,” by Daron Acemoglu, James Killian Professor of Economics at MIT, and James A. Robinson, David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University.

As these two professors contend, nations fail and ultimately collapse because of their elites’ unwillingness to provide fertile conditions in which inclusive economic and political institutions can develop.   One of the really tragic facts of human history is that only a paltry handful of nations have succeeded in building durable, inclusive societies.

Virtuous Circles

Inclusive societies emerge when elites are shorn of their incentives to deprive less advantaged groups with the means of improving their economic and political plight.  Over time, a kind of positive feedback system emerges — a virtuous circle, as Acemoglu and Robinson describe it — one that preserves inclusive institution in the face of attempts to undermine them.

Over time, this feedback system sets in motion forces that lead to even more disadvantaged groups becoming economically and politically enfranchised.

In the 19th century American elites did something truly remarkable: Instead of undertaking a futile rearguard action against the relentless march of inclusiveness, as previous generations of elites had done, they created a series of institutions with inclusiveness as the end goal.

What were the Homestead Acts and the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 other than attempts to expand this virtuous circle.  Within the next few decades, these legislative acts were reinforced with passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established a national network of outreach programs known as Cooperative Extension.

Cooperative Extension represents something remarkable in human history: a cadre of educators charged with empowering people and, in the course of which, ensuring higher levels of inclusiveness.

This reality lies at the heart of our history, and it should comprise the defining principle of social media adoption within Cooperative Extension.

Yes, all this frantic social media adoption is a good thing. But we must understand these online technologies for what they really are: As powerful new ways to empower our diverse audiences—to extend the virtuous circle.